The Barbarian Beard.

Victor Mair has a post at the Log full of the kind of detailed historical/philological investigation I love. A correspondent wrote that “in Chinese the word for beard (胡子) has an archaic root meaning ‘foreign,'” and Mair, who had long “wondered if all of these expressions [húshuō(bādào) 胡说(八道) ‘nonsense; ridiculous; bullshit,’ húrén 胡人 ‘barbarian,’ húzi 胡子 ‘beard,’ húnào 胡闹 ‘act wild; be mischievous,’ etc.] … had something to do with wild, bearded barbarians from the west,” decided to look into it. He says:

… it begins to get really tricky, because it is possible that certain non-Sinitic peoples to the north and northwest were thought of as hú 胡 because they had hú 胡 (“beards”) and that these hú 胡 folk behaved in a very hú 胡 (“wild; uncontrolled; unruly”) fashion. But this is a semantic and etymological minefield upon which we must tread cautiously.

Some points to consider:

1. The earliest meaning of hú 胡 is generally considered to be “tissue drooping down under the chin of an animal (e.g., dewlap)” — note that the character has a “flesh” radical.

2. By extension, it came to mean “part of a weapon that hangs down”, and this is probably also how the meaning “beard” arose (“the pendulous mass of hair under a man’s chin”).

3. Hú 胡 also developed the meaning of “neck” (the part of an animal behind the thing hanging down) and “broad; large”, which I’ve written about extensively in Victor H. Mair, “Was There a Xià Dynasty?“, Sino-Platonic Papers, 238 (May, 2013), 1-39. See esp. p. 9 where the Old Sinitic reconstruction of hú 胡/鬍 (“beard; bearded person”) is given as *’ga (in Jerry Norman’s spelling system according to David Branner), together with cognates in Tibetan.

There are a bunch more points, some speculation, and an image of “a band of musicians with a dancer on top of a camel’s back.” Check it out.

Comments

  1. “2. By extension, it came to mean “part of a weapon that hangs down”, and this is probably also how the meaning “beard” arose (“the pendulous mass of hair under a man’s chin”).”

    There is a parallel in English but the extension went the other way. A “skegg” is the thing hanging down from a surfboard like a little immovable rudder. It’s a loan from some version of Norse, where it is the word for ‘beard”. It’s probably cognate with “shag”.

  2. Oh great, now I’ve achieved satori. There’s already too much going on today.

  3. The personal name Barbara supposedly means ‘barbarian’, ‘foreigner’ or such, but I still don’t understand why someone would be named that, and why no equivalent male name exists. Is it actually related to the old Roman surname Barbatus?

  4. J. W. Brewer says:

    Those who are skeptical about the historicity of St. Barbara the Great Martyr often focus on the alleged lapse of several centuries between the date usually given for her martyrdom and the rise in popularity of her veneration. But by the tail-end of the first millenium “there’s a well-known and popularly beloved saint named X” could be a good enough reason for it to become a reasonably popular given name even if the etymology (actual or apparent) might otherwise render it suboptimal, and there’s no need to think the name needed to have been a popular (or even otherwise attested) one in the pre-Christian population of the region where it became popular as a Christian name. Of course, the skeptics tend not to address why a fictitious saint made up out of whole cloth centuries after her supposed martyrdom wouldn’t have a more plausible/cromulent name. I am pleased to learn that in the Christian communities of Lebanon these days kids do trick-or-treating a la US Halloween on St. Barbara’s Day: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eid_il-Burbara

  5. It probably began as a (nick)name for a female slave (particularly one with a name unpronounceable by Greeks and Romans) and was then extended to her half-caste daughters, and eventually caught on among the free-born. Christianity was especially popular among slaves, so it wasn’t long before there was a Saint Barbara.

  6. Hill in “Through the Jade Gate to Rome: A Study of the Silk Routes during the Later Han Dynasty, First to Second Centuries CE.” says:

    “The term hu 胡 was used to denote non-Han Chinese populations. It is, rather unsatisfactorily, commonly translated as ‘barbarian’. While sometimes it was used in this general way to describe people of non-Han descent, and carried the same negative overtones of the English term, this was not always the case. Most frequently, it was used to denote people, usually of Caucasoid or partial Caucasoid appearance, living to the north and west of China. (2009:453)”

    However, the term was also applied to Donghu (simplified Chinese: 东胡; traditional Chinese: 東胡; pinyin: Dōnghú; Wade–Giles: Tung-hu; literally: “Eastern Foreigners” or “Eastern barbarians”) people who are thought to be direct ancestors of Mongols.

    Did the earliest Mongols (more likely their ruling elite at the time) have Caucasoid or partial Caucasoid appearance?

  7. The personal name Barbara supposedly means ‘barbarian’, ‘foreigner’ or such, but I still don’t understand why someone would be named that

    I don’t know anything about Barbara the name, but the question of why someone would have a name with such a meaning makes me think of the trope of the foreigner-outsider-stranger as endowed with moral distinction because they are not part of society — e.g. in the hadith about pure Muslims being strangers, or the film Anniyan (stranger, foreigner) in which the Brahmin “stranger” is the agent of moral vengeance.

  8. I had heard that the Latin word we get “barbarian” from was originally a kind of onomatopoeia, from mimicking the incomprehensible speech of foreigners as “bar-bar-bar”. But it is curious that the Latin word for “beard” is barba, from which we get “barber”. Could there be some parallel connection here between foreigners (or the perceived uncivilized) and beards?

  9. Sorry, my brain doesn’t seem to be functioning this morning. I see that the “barbarian” – “barba” question is the thing that launched Victor Mair’s inquiry. Again, apologies.

  10. I had heard that the Latin word we get “barbarian” from was originally a kind of onomatopoeia, from mimicking the incomprehensible speech of foreigners as “bar-bar-bar”. But it is curious that the Latin word for “beard” is barba, from which we get “barber”.

    “Barbarian” comes to Latin from Greek, “barbaroi” which IIRC has the meaning you give; the ancient Greek for “beard” is “pogon”. And “barba” for a beard comes from PIE, apparently, so it’s not as though the Romans acquired the word “barbarian” from the Greek and then derived “barba” from it to mean “that thing the barbarians have on their chins”. Looks like it’s just a coincidence.

  11. “The personal name Barbara supposedly means ‘barbarian’, ‘foreigner’ or such, but I still don’t understand why someone would be named that,”

    If you look at the distribution of that name, you find it is a lot more common in Germany and the Netherlands than in Italy or Spain or wherever. That suggest that even if there was some saint in Roman times named Barbara, that’s not the real source of the name. I remembered coming across some claim that there had been a minor goddess in northern Germany and the Netherlands named “Barbet”. (No other source, I’m afraid.). If that’s true then it sounds like the same basis for the name “Linda” < linden tree (a mythologically and impressionistically feminine tree).

    I think this is similar to what went on with "Ann". The party line is that it is Latin for "Hannah", Jesus' grandmother. Actually there was a very popular goddess in southern Ireland named "Aine" and it is exactly this form that it appears in as an Irish personal name. The name spread with the Irish missionaries to Germanic lands, as did the name "Brigid," (now Brid) "Birgit", "Birgitta" etc.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    linden tree (a mythologically and impressionistically feminine tree)

    Also grammatically: die Linde.

  13. Zelený drak says:

    The Latin “barbatus” (bearded) evolved to “bărbat” meaning man in Romanian. So it looks like shaving was not very popular in that region.

  14. In answer to ZD, the Romanian word looks like a coinage to rid the language of an ambiguity inherited from Vulgar Latin. Classical Latin had two words, VIR and HOMO, where the former word meant a male human being and the latter a human being, who could be male or female. In the transition to Vulgar Latin VIR was wholly lost and replaced by HOMO, which could have either meaning, and to this day its French reflex, HOMME, maintains this ambiguity.

    Romanian BARBAT, on the other hand, now occupies the same semantic space VIR occupied in Classical Latin, with Romanian OM now likewise occupying the semantic space Classical HOMO did.

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